Senior center Tye'sha Fluker scored a career-high 22 points with an assortment of inside moves to counter the size of the Tigers. Junior forward Sidney Spencer tallied an SEC career-high 18 points. Freshman forward Candace Parker had a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds. The other two starters, Shanna Zolman, and Nicky Anosike, were in single digits in points with nine and five, respectively, but they filled up the stat sheet elsewhere. Zolman had six assists to only one turnover, and Anosike had six rebounds and three steals.
But the best part of the game for Summitt was the performance of her bench.
"This is what I think we needed," she said. "Everyone's in double-figure minutes except for Lindsey (Moss), and she had nine. We were challenging our bench to step up and be more productive, and that's the one area I'm probably the most pleased to see how our bench played."
Tennessee got 16 points from its bench with eight points each from forwards Alex Fuller and Dominique Redding. Guard Lindsey Moss was able to spell Zolman some at the point, and center Sybil Dosty had five rebounds with four coming on the offensive end. Moss and Dosty also had one assist and one steal each.
"That's exactly what we've challenged our bench to do," Summitt said. "I was pleased with Redding's energy coming off the bench, with Dosty's energy. Also with Fuller – she had eight points, she was very composed, got some good looks. I thought all three played well. In particular Dom and Alex they had a scoring mentality."
Tennessee (25-3, 11-2) dominated the boards against Auburn (13-13, 4-9), especially on the offensive end. Auburn had two compared to 15 for the Lady Vols, and Tennessee out-rebounded the Tigers overall, 40-25. Board play has been stressed of late, especially with the loss of point guard Alexis Hornbuckle, the team's second-leading rebounder, to a broken wrist on Feb. 12.
"We've started rebounding the ball better in recent games," Summitt said. "It's not that we didn't emphasize it before. I think losing Alexis, being our second leading rebounder, was really a challenge for everyone. Trying to get better defensive boards and not give them offensive putbacks."
Before the game assistant coach Dean Lockwood and Summitt discussed the board play of Auburn, which has the 6'7 KeKe Carrier, the 6'5 Marita Payne and the 6'4 DeWanna Bonner across the frontline.
"Dean said he'd be happy if they got no more than seven," Summitt said. "I said that was too high a number. I'm looking here, and they only had two offensive boards. I thought that was key. We had 15 offensive boards. Every time you get an offensive board you have a chance to get a putback, and that's why we're working the glass a little bit more."
Auburn coach Nell Fortner lamented the ability of Tennessee to hit the boards. The Lady Vols did it in an assortment of ways with direct routes to the glass, tips and deflections. They got 18 second-chance points to zero for Auburn.
"It's demoralizing; it's backbreaking," Fortner said. "Tennessee does such a great job of just attacking and getting in there and a hand on the ball and keeping it alive. We didn't do a good job of putting bodies on people. You've just got to do a good job of putting bodies on players to keep them off the boards, and we didn't do that."
The Tigers were led by two freshmen. Bonner had 14 points and six rebounds and guard Sherell Hobbs had 12 points and four boards. Bonner was paired defensively with Parker for much of the night in a matchup of two of the league's top newcomers.
"I was saying (before the game) I look forward to the four years with Bonner and Parker because they are very similar players," Fortner said. "Parker definitely has more meat on her bones than Bonner does, but Bonner has the size and the length to defend her and to stay with her. She's not quite as good an offensive player right now as Parker, but I think that as she continues to mature, she has the size and the speed to defend Parker. I think that her offensive game will improve, and I think that will be a good matchup over the next three years."
Auburn was still in the game for much of the first half and only trailed by 10 at halftime, 39-29. Tennessee was out of sync offensively – its first three possessions resulted in a block and two turnovers, but the Lady Vols were playing defense and rebounding on the other end. Then Spencer hit back-to-back three-pointers on assists from Zolman and Parker to help jump-start Tennessee. Fluker took a brief break on the bench and then returned to the paint and took over. She drew fouls, hit all six free throws attempts and went to the locker room at halftime with 10 points.
"Tye and Sid were huge," Parker said. "Particularly in the beginning of the game Sid hit some big shots. She's confident in her shot now, and I'm glad she's taking them because she's a great shooter. I think Tye was huge down on the block. She's got a new nickname: Chocolate Thunder From Down Under."
"Please don't print that," Fluker said to much laughter, but it was too late since Parker had already bestowed the appellation in the post-game interview with Fox Sports.
"Tye was huge," Parker said. "We were having fun just playing, moving the ball, running in transition, and that's where we were at our best."
Fluker said she went through her pre-game routine with Lockwood where she works on her post moves. She had specifically included some for facing Auburn because of its shot-blocking ability.
"When we shoot Dean does a good job of working on not only a first move but having a counter, too, so we work on a lot of step-throughs, a lot of up-and-unders, a lot of misdirection, going one way and spin back the other," Fluker said. "I always shoot before the game with Dean just for a reminder of different moves I can do against a taller lineup."
It worked. Auburn only had five blocks with two from Carrier and two from Payne, who was averaging four per game and had 101 for the season coming into the game.
Fluker also nearly single-handedly got the Tigers in foul trouble. In the first half she drew Bonner's and Payne's second fouls on two ‘and-one' plays.
"The one thing that I think Tye has added to her offensive game particularly in the paint and when she's on the low block, she's really looking to initiate contact and know at that point where the defense is positioned, whether they're dead behind or they're playing on one side or the other," Summitt said. "I turned to Dean and said, ‘She has a lot of composure. It's not like she's overanxious.' She's really reading and taking advantage of what the defense is giving her."
Normally holding Tennessee's two leading scorers, Parker and Zolman, to a combined 20 points would have been a good sign for the Tigers. But Fluker and Spencer combined for 40 points.
"Obviously it's a career high for Tye and for Sid I'm just really pleased that she's playing to her strengths," Summitt said. "She's a great offensive player; she's a great outside shooter. She's a scorer. The thing that she did so well in this game is she followed her misses and got some easy putbacks and got involved that way. She can score. If you just look at our lineup she has a mismatch a big percentage of the time whether people are playing zone or playing man just because of her size – particularly if you've got Parker on one wing and you have Spencer on the other."
Spencer said the team was following the game plan.
"I think we finally did what coach asked us to do – we got the ball inside," she said. "I think we had like 42 points in the paint. We were getting a lot of touches and getting ‘and-ones' plays. I think that was doing what coach asked. I think getting the ball inside is going to be key for us down the stretch.
"Like Candace was saying we started off slow. We changed offenses, and they left me open, and I had a smaller guard on me so I just tried to take advantage of that."
Fortner wishes the Alabama native had stayed close to home.
"I've been at Auburn for two years, and Sidney Spencer always plays well against us," Fortner said. "I guess that's because she's from right up the road at Hoover. I don't know why she didn't go to Auburn. What happened there? She always plays well against us and understandably. She's a nice player, and I'm sure she enjoys playing against the Alabama schools. But, yeah, when you hold (Parker and Zolman) to that (20 combined) but you get that (40 combined) out of the other ones, that's a little disappointing."
Fortner, however, said Tennessee is not limited offensively to its leading scorers, a fact all the more noteworthy since the Lady Vols lost two point guards – one to transfer and the other to injury.
"Tennessee's dangerous at all five players on the floor," Fortner said. "They are the only team in the country that can lose players like they've lost players and still stay in the top five in the country. They just keep going to the cupboard, going to the cupboard, and they just keep bringing players in there. They're huge right now. With Sidney Spencer playing the two and Parker the three – I mean, my gosh, they're huge. I thought we were big, but we're not big compared to them. They're huge."
Parker almost had the hugest moment of the game at the 13:05 mark of the second half. She stole a cross-court pass and broke free down the left side. She left her feet above the low block on the inner edge of the paint and just missed a one-handed slam. A rather sedate crowd of 9,295 suddenly came to life, energized by the athletic miss.
"When she took off I thought, ‘She's going to try to dunk the ball.' I was good with it," said Summitt, who doesn't want Parker dunking in traffic or when opposing players are nearby so as not to get undercut and injured. "I didn't think anyone was close enough. I thought she just committed to it a little bit too early."
"I was just thinking attack. I took off a little far, but I just missed the dunk," said Parker, who wasn't comforted when told the miss was a pretty one. "Thanks, if there's any such thing."
Summitt had asked her players to take it to the Tigers so Parker took it a step further in what had been Tennessee's method of operation for most of the second half – run and score in transition or pound it inside and let the outside open up, too.
"What we talked about was going at them, and we tried to go at them early, and they managed to block some shots and take away some scoring options," Summitt said of the opening minutes. "I thought we did a better job of using power, and then finesse – posting it in and then looking, reading and making good decisions. Auburn has a lot of youth on their team, but their size was equal to ours in most cases, particularly in the paint."
Parker said Tennessee was prepared for the size but needed to adjust its execution.
"I think we were ready for it," she said. "It's the starters' fault for not starting off the game with high energy and bringing our intensity. I think once we settled down a little bit and realized we've got to get going, we responded.
"I think it makes a huge difference to have inside-outside, and we can run. I think we did a good job when we had to of setting up in the half-court offense and working the ball inside. (Fluker) did a good job of making them get fouls and just going at them. Like Tye said, having moves and counter-moves."
Zolman had a solid performance at the point position and distributed the ball. Overall Tennessee had 17 assists to only 10 turnovers. Zolman also made one of six three-pointers and has now hit a three-pointer in 27 of 28 games this season.
"I think Shanna is getting more and more comfortable at the point and running our offense, trying to get other people involved," Summitt said. "I think it gives her an opportunity to lead to have the ball in her hands and to make some decisions. She's now comfortable to give it up to get it back, and I thought her shot selection was very good."
Zolman and Parker may have been under their scoring averages, but both found ways to fill out the stat sheet with Parker also adding five assists, three steals and a block to her points and board play.
"I think Candace is a player that's just growing in a lot of ways," Summitt said. "She's becoming much more aggressive on the boards, and I think her defensive intensity has picked up, and that's why I think her stat line looks better. It gets better and better."
Tennessee appears to be hitting its stride at the right time. The last game of the regular season is Sunday against Florida. The SEC Tournament then starts next week in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Summitt had an eye on the postseason as she watched the performance of her bench players Thursday.
"It's key I think for our bench to give us those kind of minutes, in particular as we finish out the rest of the season on Sunday and go to Little Rock in hopes of playing for a championship," Summitt said. "That's three consecutive games if we can survive and advance. I just think the more rest you can have along the way the better off you're going to be if you're fortunate enough to be in that (title) game on Sunday.
Tennessee's top performer on Thursday certainly appreciated their effort.
"I think they did an awesome job," Fluker said. "Everybody stepped up and took the challenge that coach presented them with the last game. They got some good minutes, and they showed coach that they're here and they're ready to play and help us in any way that they can. I was proud of them. I was proud to watch. I was proud to cheer when they did good passing plays out there. Dom was hitting threes. It was good to see them out there working hard and helping everyone out."
Summitt said the play of the starters has a symbiotic affect on the play of the bench.
"When Fluker is an anchor for us like that she makes everyone else on the floor better because it takes more than one player to defend her," Summitt said. "She can draw double teams, and that's going to open up the outside game. I have said this all along and that's one of the reasons I wanted to get her back in the lineup: She is the one post player that we can go to early and be productive. She's a hard player to defend on the block because of her size and her physical strength and then her aggressiveness. And now she's added composure to that. That can make a huge difference in how this team fares in Little Rock."
COURTSIDE IN FLORIDA Summitt was courtside for the Tennessee men's basketball game against the Gators in Florida on Wednesday, a game the Vols won in the final seconds, 76-72. She was asked post-game about watching the men and if that helped inspire her team. It was also a game in which coach Bruce Pearl sweated through his suit and was saturated at the end.
"I had gone down to recruit, and I caught the second half of the men's game," Summitt said. "First of all the atmosphere was just unbelievable. It would probably be very similar to what you see at Duke and what we felt being in their arena. Obviously Bruce he sweated a little bit more than his players and while he didn't score any points, he had an awful lot to do with how many points were scored. I told our basketball team tonight before the game just watching (the men's) team and their toughness and their competitiveness and their togetherness it was really incredible. I think that's a real credit certainly to the players but to Bruce and his coaching staff. I haven't seen a tighter group since I've been coaching here at Tennessee."